An anonymous correspondent takes exception to my post last week concerning – again – the unscholarly and dishonest use of source material characteristic of the political writings of Noam Chomsky. He writes (first quoting a sentence from my post):
"Bear in mind, too, that while Chomsky has produced many books on politics, they are often strikingly similar: collections of articles or interviews that make identical arguments." Ah, well, duh, he's not a fascist one day and a leninist the next now is he? You pretentious whore, you wouldn't know a valid argument if it hit you over the head with a (Chomsky) book. Most people who occupy a given political position have identical core arguments, otherwise, get this: they contradict themselves! Aside from the meaninglessness of this claim, you procede [sic] to do the very same thing that your critics accuse you of doing with Chomsky: you select a few points he makes (from completely different sources, I might add) accuse him of implicitly saying that success of US client states is judged by the number of people killed, and once again launch the perenial [sic] (only this time implicit) insult that Chomsky is a holocaust denier because "when the errors are all in the same direction-namely a determination to prove that the United States is morally equal or inferior to Nazi Germany-then something more is involved". This "determination to prove that the United States is morally equal or inferior to Nazi Germany" is nothing more than a passing reference to Nazi crimes to give the reader a sense of scale when it comes to judging the impact of US atrocity. Chomsky is not out to prove anything good about Nazi Germany- quite the opposite, in fact, given that he uses it as a measure of atrocity, even you should be able to see that. About the allegations of Chomsky's holocaust denial, it turns out he did nothing more than defend a French crackpot's right to say what he liked without going to jail for it. It's the difference between protecting somebody's right to praise capitalism and promoting capitalism itself. But I digress. You're about as insightful to read as Eminem on crack. Go fuck yourself.
My correspondent is wrong in every essential but not every particular. (It’s true, for example, that I deliberately cite a range of Chomsky’s political writings, in order to demonstrate that his output conforms to a pattern of systematic distortion rather than occasional error.) I’m also grateful to my correspondent for expressing succinctly a protest that is very common in the writings of Chomsky and his admirers. Here, for example, is Chomsky responding to his faithful Boswell, a radio producer called David Barsamian, in one of his many books of interviews, Chronicles of Dissent (1992, p. 95):
Q. I ask you this question because I know that you have been plagued and hounded around the United States specifically on this issue of the Holocaust. It’s been said that Noam Chomsky is somehow agnostic on the issue of whether the Holocaust occurred or not.
A. My “agnosticism” is in print. I described the Holocaust years ago as the most fantastic outburst of insanity in human history, so much so that if we even agree to discuss the matter we demean ourselves. Those statements and numerous others like them are in print, but they’re basically irrelevant because you have to understand that this is part of a Stalinist-style technique to silence critics of the holy state [i.e. Israel] and therefore the truth is entirely irrelevant, you just tell as many lies as you can and hope that some of the mud will stick. It’s a standard technique used by the Stalinist parties, by the Nazis and by these guys.
This passage is a model of Chomsky’s technique, being both false and evasive. Barsamian sets up the cue to refute a charge quite different from the ones that Chomsky’s critics actually make. (Note the use of the passive voice in the construction “It’s been said that ….”; it neatly absolves both men from identifying any public figure who has, in this instance, been doing the saying.) Chomsky’s most prominent critics on Jewish matters – such as Alan Dershowitz, the political philosopher Steven Lukes, or the late historian of the Holocaust Lucy Dawidowicz – have never accused him of agnosticism on the historicity of the Holocaust. Chomsky, however, gratefully fulminates against the straw man Barsamian has built for him, and for good measure likens his critics to Nazis and Stalinists. Anyone – my correspondent, for example - who relies on this sort of thing for information will get only a skewed, calumnious and dishonest account.
The genuine charges against Chomsky – as opposed to the ones Chomsky would prefer his critics to make so that he may better affect an injured innocence - relate to a Holocaust denier called Robert Faurisson. When my correspondent speaks of “a French crackpot”, he is alluding to Faurisson. I suppose I should at least give him credit for that; oddly enough, other admirers of Chomsky use polite, even respectful, language about Faurisson. For example, Neil Smith, Professor of Linguistics at University College London, says in his hagiography Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals (1999, p.208):
Faurisson is a professor of history whose research led him to question the existence of gas chambers in Nazi Germany and to doubt the Holocaust.
I fear it tells us something of the editorial standards of Cambridge University Press that so ignorant and disgusting a remark has survived into the recently-published second edition of the book. As Smith ought to have checked, Faurisson is not and never has been a professor of history, or indeed any type of historian. He was at one time a lecturer in twentieth-century French literature at the University of Lyons-2. His specialist field is a pseudoscientific approach to the explication of texts. Faurisson has done no “research” at all into the Holocaust; all he’s done is apply his bogus interpretative methods to historical documents and come up with predetermined conclusions. Those conclusions include the “discovery”, using internal “evidence” (forgive the scare quotes; I can think of no context where they’re more appropriate), that the diary of Anne Frank is a hoax. More repugnant even than that casual libel (against Anne’s father, Otto Frank, whom Holocaust deniers have periodically accused of being the author of the diary himself) was Faurisson’s use of the diary of an SS doctor at Auschwitz called Johann Paul Kremer. According to Faurisson, Kremer’s diary entry referring to “extermination” (Vernichtung) in fact refers to the delousing of the camp during a typhoid epidemic. And get this: in arriving at his conclusion, Faurisson was shown by a genuine historian (and Auschwitz survivor), George Wellers, to have relied on another source – Kremer’s testimony at a trial for war crimes in Poland – and to have deliberately omitted from his account an explicit reference by Kremer, in that second source, to gas chambers. In short, Faurisson’s “research” amounted to fraud: he doctored his sources in order to avoid disclosing what they plainly stated.
As if Professor Smith were not culpable enough for misrepresenting fabrication and bigotry as research, consider his formulation about Faurisson's being led to “question the existence of gas chambers in Nazi Germany and to doubt the Holocaust”. Smith here compounds stupidity with blasphemy: no historian claims that there were extermination camps in Nazi Germany. The large camps that carried out mass gassings of Jews were in occupied Poland. [I have rewritten the immediately preceding point from the version I originally wrote - please see note at the end of the post.] Smith’s presenting a genuine historical fact about the geography of the Holocaust as if it were a considered and researched conclusion of a proven antisemitic charlatan provides an object lesson: don’t write on a subject in which you lack even the most elementary general knowledge, and if you do, then refrain from publishing the results.
Chomsky fits into this tawdry business in a way that neither his defenders nor some of his detractors have perceived. Like almost all the Chomsky admirers who write to me, my own correspondent has read little by his hero. Chomsky did a great deal more than “defend a French crackpot's right to say what he liked without going to jail for it”, and my correspondent is labouring under a remarkable misapprehension if he believes Faurisson was threatened with jail for stating his beliefs. (Faurisson was convicted in a civil not a criminal trial, brought not by the state but by two anti-racist groups, not for the content of his opinions but for falsifying history. The charge was, as I have indicated, correct and proven. Whether the trial itself was a good idea is another matter – I believe it was not, and that historical falsification ought to be policed by historians alone rather than by the courts – but the notion that Faurisson’s freedom of speech was at stake is mendacious nonsense. Faurisson was also convicted on separate charges of slandering another historian, and of incitement to racial hatred on account of antisemitic remarks made in a radio interview; again, both of these charges were correct, and in my view both prosecutions were justified. On the Faurisson case in general, see an early and useful account by Gill Seidel, a lecturer in French at Bradford University, The Holocaust Denial (1986, pp. 99-111) – though oddly she doesn’t refer to the exposure of Faurisson’s fraud regarding the Kremer testimony. Dr Seidel is, as it happens, sympathetic to Noam Chomsky’s “outspoken and courageous” position in “the anti-imperialist struggle in South East Asia”, but can’t get round Chomsky's intervention in the Faurisson affair. Her intellectual honesty ensured that the book – which failed to depict modern antisemitism as an exclusively right-wing phenomenon – did not appear under the imprint of the far-Left Pluto Press, as had been originally intended.)
The proximate cause of the controversy was the suspension of Faurisson’s lectures at his university after his public espousal of Holocaust denial and demonstrations against him. Now, you can make an argument on grounds of academic freedom that this course was wrong, but the petition that Chomsky signed in Faurisson’s defence was not that type of defence. (For the record: I believe that the University behaved perfectly properly in suspending Faurisson; an academic who can be shown to negate the values of critical inquiry has no place in a university, especially when the method by which he has advanced his campaign of lies is the very discipline he claims as his academic specialism.) Because I want to concentrate on the actual words of Noam Chomsky rather than on other people’s words that he has endorsed, I won’t go into detail on the problems with that petition – I would merely recommend, on that subject, the detailed account of Chomsky’s participation in the affair that forms chapter 2 of the French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s Assassins of Memory, 1992, originally published in French as Les assassins de la memoire in 1987. That essay, in English translation, can be read here. (In case any Holocaust denier happens to be reading this and is intent on catching me out on my sources, I should add that while Vidal-Naquet, unlike Faurisson, is a genuine and distinguished scholar of history, he is not a historian of the Holocaust: his academic expertise is the ancient world.)
Chomsky’s own position on the Faurisson affair is recorded in his essay Quelques commentaires elementaires sur le droit a la liberte d'expression, rendered in English as Some Elementary Comments on The Rights of Freedom of Expression. This essay was reproduced by Faurisson as an ‘avis’ (opinion) in his book Memoire en defense (Testimony in Defence). One of the many myths propagated by Chomsky’s admirers on this subject is that Faurisson published the essay without Chomsky’s consent. In fact Professor Arno J. Mayer of Princeton spoke to Chomsky a month before publication of the book, when Chomsky confirmed that he knew exactly the use to which his own essay would be put. Further, according to the report of an interview in the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, 18 December 1980, Chomsky confirmed that even with the benefit of hindsight he considered that his essay had not been misused. (On both these points my source is Seidel, op cit, p. 103.)
Chomsky’s avis is, first, gratuitously insulting to the quality of French intellectual life:
... where a civil libertarian tradition is evidently not well-established and where there have been deep totalitarian strains among the intelligentsia for many years.
Chomsky proceeds to make an astonishing judgement about Faurisson:
As far as I can determine, he is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort.
Much has been written on this preposterous characterisation of an apologist for Nazi Germany, yet most of it misses the mark. A few intellectually-honest Chomsky admirers are willing to accept that their hero was at least irresponsible in not checking the political record the man. (Dr Seidel – as I have indicated, a political admirer of Chomsky but not a gullible one - states correctly but inadequately that “Chomsky committed an act of gross irresponsibility”.) But most of Chomsky’s defenders (such as the Christopher Hitchens of two decades ago, Ed Herman, and the obviously-incompetent Neil Smith) won’t even go that far: they stress that on his own account Chomsky denied knowing Faurisson’s work well, and thereby excuse his bizarre characterisation of the man. Smith (op cit, p. 209) absurdly makes out that Chomsky is in fact a heroic figure:
If there is a basis for criticising [Chomsky’s] actions in the Faurisson affair it is, I think, rather that, as one has a moral responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of one’s actions, Chomsky should perhaps have foreseen the negative effect of his actions and refrained from writing the way he did. Perhaps, but on balance perhaps not. Even had he foreseen the furore which would erupt and the degree of alienation that would ensue, the moral doctrine of defending freedom of speech is probably higher.
These writers all overlook the fact that when Chomsky described Faurisson as “a sort of relatively apolitical liberal” he was already aware of the character of Faurisson’s views. (The economist Brad DeLong, who writes scathingly of Chomsky, ironically commits the same oversight: his argument is that Chomsky had a duty to find out about Faurisson's work and was culpable in not doing so. See his comments on this well-intentioned but mistaken post by another blogger.) How do I know this? Because in the same essay Chomsky himself tells us so:
The fact that I had signed the petition [in Faurisson’s case] aroused a storm of protest in France. In the Nouvel Observateur, an ex-Stalinist who has changed allegiance but not intellectual style published a grossly falsified version of the contents of the petition, amidst a stream of falsehoods that merit no comment. This, however, I have come to regard as normal. I was considerably more surprised to read in Esprit (September 1980) that Pierre Vidal-Naquet found the petition "scandaleuse," citing specifically that fact that I had signed it (I omit the discussion of an accompanying article by the editor that again merits no comment, at least among people who retain a commitment to elementary values of truth and honesty).
That essay in Esprit was written by Pierre Vidal-Naquet and is also reprinted in his book Assassins of Memory. (Unfortunately it is not available on-line, so far as I know.) It contains the following summary of the beliefs of Faurisson and his fellow-deniers (pp. 18-19; the references that Vidal-Naquet gives are to a book entitled Vérité historique ou vérité politique? [Historical Truth or Political Truth?], edited by Serge Thion, 1980, which includes various of Faurisson’s writings):
It is Faurisson who stands within revisionist truth [i.e. the real nature of the Holocaust denial movement] when he proffers his famous formula: “Never did Hitler either order or accept that anyone be killed for reason of race or religion” (Vérité, p. 91). The “revisionists”, in fact, all more or less share several extremely simple principles.
1. There was no genocide and the instrument symbolising it, the gas chamber, never existed.
2. The 'final solution' was never anything other than the expulsion of the Jews towards eastern Europe, their “repression”, as Faurisson elegantly puts it (Vérité, p. 90). Since “most of the Jews of France came from the east”, it may be concluded that it was never anything more than their repatriation, a bit as when French authorities repatriated Algerians, in October 1961, in their “native douars”.
3. The number of Jewish victims of Nazism is far smaller than has been claimed.... Faurisson, for his part, (almost) divides the million [claimed by his fellow deniers Arthur Butz and Paul Rassinier] in two: a few hundred thousand deaths in uniform (which is a fine demonstration of valour) and as many killed in “acts of war” (Vérité, p. 197). As for the death statistics for Auschwitz, they "rose to about 50,000" (ibid.).
4. Hitler's Germany does not bear the principal responsibility for the Second World War. It shares that responsibility, for example, with the Jews (Faurisson in Vérité, p.187), or it may even not bear any responsibility at all.
5. The principal enemy of the human race during the 1930s was not Nazi Germany but Stalin’s Soviet Union.
6. The genocide was an invention of Allied propaganda, which was largely Jewish, and specifically Zionist, and which may be easily explained by the Jewish propensity to give imaginary statistics, under the influence of the Talmud.
I stress the point, for it goes to the heart of this issue, and Chomsky’s admirers continually evade it. Faurisson is not merely some crank with a conspiracy theory. He’s not arguing that there is a crashed UFO at Roswell, that the Turin Shroud is genuine, or that the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare. He is a deliberate, overt, malevolent, lying, poisonous antisemite. Noam Chomsky may not have read Faurisson’s work, and may not have known much about it, but he knew that much, because he had read the account that I have just quoted. Yet he describes Faurisson in very different language from the terms any civilised and critical person would use.
I have laid out as objectively as I can the facts of the Faurisson case and Chomsky’s intervention in it, as well as linking to what both Chomsky and his admirers have said on the matter. My final comments must delve into a more speculative explanation of why Chomsky did this and what his remarks tell us about him.
My original correspondent accused me of “implicitly” (a usefully elastic term) describing Chomsky as a Holocaust denier. I did no such thing, of course. Instead I pointed to the fact that Chomsky habitually depicts the US as morally equal or inferior to Nazi Germany. This is an undeniable inference from a close reading of Chomsky. I take almost at random (in the sense that it’s the nearest Chomsky book on my shelves to where I’m sitting) his volume Rogue States (2000). There are five entries in the index for “Nazi Germany”. Every single one of those mentions is made in the context of a comparison with the United States, to the disadvantage of the latter. On page 45, criticising the notion of “humanitarian intervention”, Chomsky depicts Nazi aggression against Czechoslovakia as part of a tradition that includes the US/UK bombing of Iraq in 1998. On page 85, Chomsky records that Theodore Roosevelt “was greatly admired by Hitler, and for good reason”. On page 162, Chomsky correctly states that “The Nazis broke new ground with industrialised genocide” – before declaring in the next sentence that, “Military attacks specifically targeting civilians peaked with the allied bombings of Germany and Japan.” On page 164, he comments on the alleged absence of soul-searching among Americans on the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Tokyo, adding: “A prolonged record of victorious conquest is not good for the character, in my opinion, and I think history tends to substantiate that judgement. To take a recent example, Hitler was perhaps the most popular leader in German history, pre-Stalingrad.” Finally, on page 179, Chomsky notes the historical debate over whether Nazism or Communism was morally worse, only to complain at the lack of historical debate over “the devastation caused by the direct assaults of Western power and its clients during the same years”, which he terms “ideologically serviceable amnesia”.
I noted above that Chomsky’s indignant self-defence over the Holocaust denial issue was false and evasive. The record I have just quoted confirms me in that judgement. Chomsky claims “numerous” statements “in print” about the Holocaust, but his statements on that subject and on Nazi Germany in general are almost always polemical devices with which to denigrate the United States. There are many things that can be said about such claims, but I will state the bare minimum: for all the faults it has exhibited, evils it has tolerated and even crimes it has committed in its history, the United States is a free society that has acted with nobility in defending western civilisation against tyranny. To draw an analogy with an incomparably evil and genocidal regime is pitiful sophistry.
What, finally, are we to make of Chomsky’s remarks on the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson? They are worse than sophistry. Chomsky is not himself a Holocaust denier, and no responsible critic has ever claimed he is. He is, rather, an “antisemitism denier”. His disaffection from genuinely progressive values – the values that the United States at its best effectively promotes, as we have lately seen in Afghanistan – is so extreme that it leads him to see not only “no enemies on the Left” but also “no enemies amongst the enemies of my enemies” – even if it puts him alongside men who whitewash Nazi genocide. That is a damning charge, but my explanation fits the facts as no other does. Consider this fact, which I believe has not been commented on publicly before.
In November 1979 The New Statesman published an article by Gitta Sereny on the Holocaust deniers Richard Verrall (the editor of the National Front’s magazine, and the pseudonymous author of the single most pernicious – because popular – tract denying the Holocaust), Arthur Butz and Faurisson. Only one paragraph refers to Faurisson: it states who Faurisson is, records briefly a telephone conversation between him and Sereny, and remarks on his “mechanism of double-think” (Faurisson apparently believes that Sereny’s exhaustive studies of Nazi Germany provide proof of his own case!). That's it. Yet according to an unpublished and ridiculously pompous letter, dated 30 November 1979, that Faurisson sent to the magazine:
Noam Chomsky, the famous professor (of Jewish origin) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is aware of the research work I do on what Revisionist Historians term “the gas chamber and genocide hoax.” He informed me that Gitta Sereny had mentioned my name in the above article, and stated that I had been referred to “in an extraordinarily unfair way.”
Faurisson is an inveterate liar, but the presence of a direct quotation from Chomsky – which I am not aware Chomsky has ever denied - has at least the appearance of verisimilitude. Did Chomsky write to Faurisson? If so, what was he doing defending a bigot not from attacks on his liberties but from mere journalistic comment? What could any sane person regard as “extraordinarily unfair” about the almost anodyne remark of Gitta Sereny? (Sereny’s article is reproduced in her book The German Trauma, 2000, pp. 135-146. The letter of Faurisson, along with similar efforts from Verrall and Butz, is reproduced here – take great care with this link: it takes you to a Holocaust denial web site, which I obviously link to purely for information and not out of any sympathy with its contents. If you do follow the link, note the admirably robust response of the then editor of The New Statesman, Bruce Page, to these vexatious correspondents.)
I have periodically remarked upon a disturbing characteristic of some sections of the modern Left. They are the people who cannot recognise, and who even themselves espouse, the antisemitism associated with the campaign to denigrate Israel as an apartheid state and defame Zionism as racist ideology. Chomsky, characteristically, takes this tendency to the most extreme and illogical variant imaginable: he denies the antisemitism even of explicit antisemitism. As Paul Berman remarked in Village Voice (1-7 July 1981, quoted in Alan Dershowitz, Chutzpah, 1991, p. 178) after Chomsky’s intervention in the Faurisson case:
I am afraid that [Chomsky’s] present remarks on antisemitism and anti-Zionist lies disqualify him from ever being taken seriously on matters pertaining to the Jews.
My only quarrel with that judgement is that the last six words are redundant.
UPDATE: Bertil Knudsen writes to point out that I unaccountably managed to misspell Gitta Sereny's name throughout the post. My apologies to Mrs Sereny; I have gone back to correct this mistake in the text.
In the original version of this post I wrote that the camps with gas chambers were outside Germany. Chris Lightfoot writes:
This isn't quite true, in fact. There was a gas chamber at Dachau (constructed in 1942, but never used); and there were gas chambers in a number of hospitals, used for the `euthanasia' programme of murder of psychiatric patients. This doesn't affect your central point, of course.
This is quite correct; I ought to have said that the camps that carried out mass gassings of Jews were outside Germany. I have rewritten the point accordingly. (For examples of how the Holocaust deniers distort this point for their own ends, see this sobering explanation on the Nizkor web site.)
My thanks for these corrections.